THE TENTLESS TRANSIENTS:
A HISTORY OF ECHO CREEK
by Ben Bradley
In June 1970, Parks Canada established the Echo Creek campground as an experimental response to the thousands of “tentless transients” expected to pass through Banff that summer. In this companion web piece to Rockies Life in the ’70s, featured in Volume 2 of the Canadian Rockies Annual, Ben Bradley explores the rise and fall of the short-lived, long-haired crowd at Echo Creek.
During the early 1970s, communities on major highways all around Canada experienced waves of young transients that surpassed those of the late 1960s. In the Rockies, these waves were most powerful and controversial in Banff. In June 1970, Parks Canada established the Echo Creek campground as an experimental response to the thousands of “tentless transients” expected to pass through that summer. It was located near the Trans-Canada Highway interchange at the western entrance to town because so many hitchhikers arrived and departed that way. The campground had two big tents, fire pits, and basic water and toilet facilities, but no permanent structures ( and automobiles were not permitted). Only a nominal fee was charged to enter.
Camp proponents saw it as a common sense, compassionate response to an already existing problem. It would allow social workers to help those in need. It would reduce the problem of transient youths loitering in Central Park, loafing on the town’s sidewalks, and illegally setting up ‘jungle’ camps in forested areas around town. However, the Banff Advisory Council and Canadian Government Travel Bureau worried the camp would encourage dirty, long-haired transients to linger in town, threatening Banff’s tourist reputation.
A host of problems was pinned on the Echo Creek camp in 1970. Merchants complained of shoplifting and a “procession of panhandlers” on Banff Avenue. Drug arrests shot up: 56 were charged in the first week of July. Accidents occurred on the highway when motorists stopped for hitchhikers. Jasper saw a similar pattern: shoplifting, vandalism, and break-ins had the Jasper Booster wondering “what is this world (or at least this little corner of it) coming to?” Jasper had the “Free Camp” as a kind of equivalent to Echo Creek; however, it opened in 1973.
Echo Creek reopened in 1971, despite protests from the Banff Advisory Council. In the lead-up to the summer travel season, all the picnic shelters were removed from Central Park to prevent transients camping in them, and Banff’s first private security company was formed, patrolling downtown from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. The number of transients passing through Banff was even larger than in 1970: there were more drug offenses and complaints from merchants, and the local magistrate took to jailing anyone convicted of shoplifting, rather than issuing the customary fine. A field kitchen provided sustenance at Echo Creek but crowding caused conditions to deteriorate. The advisory council complained that the camp was half-full of American draft dodgers, was not segregated by sex, and that its occupants seemed to have money for “booze, pot, fines, bail, etc. and yet we are giving them welfare.” Transients were likened to nuisance wildlife – “as long as you supply them with food you will have them on your doorstep.” A letter to the editor jokingly suggested park staff should relocate grizzly bears to Echo Creek because “bears are very good at clearing up garbage.” The campground closed abruptly after officials declared it a public health hazard. Their description of campers “micturating” in Forty-Mile Creek caused particular offense.
In the aftermath, the Banff Advisory Council declared the camp “disgraceful… permissive… totally at odds with Park usage concepts… a travesty on standards of morality.” Echo Creek did not reopen in 1972. Complaints about transients and hippies were subsequently replaced by complaints about noisy motorcycles being revved and defiantly parked on the median of Banff Avenue, and about campground noise and rowdyism – a problem that would plague Banff and other mountain parks through the 1970s.
Ben Bradley is a historian of western Canada and author of the forthcoming British Columbia by the Road: Car Culture and the Making of a Modern Landscape.